Cats, Astronauts and Orange Robes… The Unlikely History of Neurofeedback

Neurofeedback began in the late 1950’s through the work of Dr Joe Kamiya at the University of Chicago.  He discovered that he could train cats to control their epileptic seizures through a simple brain feedback device. Happily, he moved on to train humans to control their epilepsy using the same method.

In the 1960’s, the technique caught the attention of NASA scientists, who used it in astronaut training – initially to train out the likelihood of astronauts having seizures when exposed to lander fuel, and later for focus and attention training. They still use it in their space training programs today.

In the mid 1970’s, neurofeedback caught the attention of meditators as an aid in spiritual development, and so wandered into the no-man’s land between science and religion. Conferences were attended by two people in orange robes for each one in a white lab coat. Soon neurofeedback gained a certain reputation as a meditation or spiritual tool, which considering the extreme biases of the time made it an unpopular choice for career minded researchers.

Neurofeedback didn’t fit the (now defunct) medical view of how the brain functioned. Though the empirical data proved that neurofeedback worked, it couldn’t possibly work under the medical model. This kept neurofeedback regarded as ‘spooky’ medicine.

On the fringes work continued. By the late 80’s neurofeedback was being applied to attention deficit disorders, and through the 90’s to a wide variety of psychological and central nervous system based conditions.

Over the last decade, the medical view of the brain has changed completely and the principles of neuroplasticity are universally accepted. Neuroscience has come to accept the interrelation between the central nervous system, the autoimmune system, emotional, physical, and mental health. It has conceded that indeed, the brain can change at any age, and that we create new neurones throughout life. The natural mechanisms underlying neurofeedback are now becoming clear.

To most medical practitioners, neurofeedback is still foreign. Many hold a view based on its old reputation, and have had no exposure to the vast research available concerning neurofeedback. Old views die hard, particularly regarding competing methods that lie outside of their expertise.

About the Author:  BrainWorks Neurotherapy is located in London, UK.